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High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House - Part 2

By Thomas J. Cole Journal Investigative Reporter
Copyright 2007, Albuquerque Journal
   
Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a five-part biography of Bill Richardson by Journal reporters Leslie Linthicum and Thomas J. Cole, who spent months researching this project. It is appearing over five weeks in the Sunday Journal.
   

    WASHINGTON— Bill Richardson was just 35 when he was sworn in as a congressman in January 1983.
    He had long sideburns, a mop of wavy black hair, a tremendous energy for the work ahead and an equally large ambition.
    "He was an audacious freshman member of Congress," says Melanie Kenderdine, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff. "He was fairly disrespectful of authority, because he wanted to get things done."
    Richardson quickly moved to get a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, a perch usually reserved for more senior members.
    He lobbied Democratic leaders for the committee spot, using the same approach he had used to win fraternity president in college— the only other elective office he had held before his run for Congress.
    Richardson would find a member of Congress, get in his face and launch into a campaign speech.
    Kenderdine, in her first job on the Hill, watched the hallway lobbying effort with wonder.
    "I'd walk by him, he's out in the hallway and he's grabbed somebody by the lapels. Literally. I go to the ladies' room and I walk back, and he's got another member that he's grabbed by the lapels."
    It was an opening gambit that he won, landing a seat on a committee that would help him shape energy policy for constituents back home and to raise money for future campaigns.
    As a freshman congressman, Richardson already was displaying some of the skills that would kindle political fortunes— that hail-fellow-well-met personality, hard work, loyalty and smarts of both the book and street variety.
    "He was a young star from the moment he arrived," says former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash. "Everybody thought he was a comer."
    Charles Johnson, retired parliamentarian of the House, says Richardson stood out from other members because of the large number of amendments he tried to attach to legislation.
    "I can't remember others at the time who offered so many to many different bills," Johnson says. "I said, gee, where does this guy get all that energy?"
    Richardson was in a hurry to get elected to Congress after his move to New Mexico in 1978. And he was in no less of a rush once he got there.
    He had worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill before he looked west to find a state where voters might launch a Hispanic Democrat back to Washington and into Congress.
    Richardson also had powerful friends in the House and Senate, several of whom had traveled to New Mexico to campaign for him.
    By the time he was elected to the House, he had spent more time working in Washington than he had living in New Mexico.
    "It feels good to be going back to Washington," Richardson told supporters the night of his election to Congress in November 1982.
    He would go on to serve 14 years in the House of Representatives, and his stature in Washington grew steadily on several fronts.
    Richardson pressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to become a more powerful voice, worked his way into a leadership position with House Democrats and became one of President Clinton's key allies on the Hill.
    He also became a national figure in foreign affairs, negotiating with North Korea for the release of two U.S. airmen. He traveled to Sudan, Iraq and Cuba to help win freedom for captives.
    His New Democrat-like politics also emerged during his congressional career: for a balanced budget, against gun control; for abortion rights, against gay marriage; for the death penalty, against flag burning.
    He was pragmatic, more interested in compromise and results than dogma. He generally believed that no one side or special interest should get everything and that everyone should get something.
    There was criticism along the way.
    Richardson spread himself thin and had a healthy ego and a penchant for publicity. Some saw a tendency to grab too much limelight for too little heavy lifting. But he wowed the Clinton White House with his work on a trade agreement and his diplomatic successes.
    Richardson also smoothed over his faults with his personality, including his self-effacing humor. While his colleagues in Congress gave him a standing ovation after a successful trip to Iraq to win release of two U.S. workers, Richardson dubbed himself undersecretary for thugs.
    As Richardson sought to be an actor on an ever-bigger stage during his congressional career, he didn't forget the adage that all politics is local.
    He often returned to his district on weekends to meet and greet constituents.
    He had this message for New Mexicans when he resigned his congressional seat in February 1997 to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations:
    "I will be back."
    The upstart steps up
    When Richardson first ran for Congress in 1980, Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, then House speaker, came to New Mexico to help the candidate raise money.
    "I admire your courage," the elder statesman told the political upstart.
    Richardson's opponent was longtime Republican incumbent Manuel Lujan, and the challenger was given up for dead by Democratic leaders like O'Neill.
    Nonetheless, Richardson campaigned like a man possessed.
    At first, he tried to shake 1,000 hands a day. Then it was 2,000. He even carried a counter for a while to track his success at ballgames, parades, office buildings— just about anywhere he could find warm bodies.
    He talked about the need for tax cuts and a balanced budget, how Lujan had become stale, how Congress needed new blood and that he would serve no more than six years in the House.
    A nervous Richardson spent election night in an Albuquerque hotel room, monitoring television reports, smoking a cigar and sipping Early Times whiskey.
    Early returns showed Richardson and Lujan even, but the incumbent pulled away, winning by a nose.
    That narrow defeat to a political veteran prompted people to look at the Washington carpetbagger with new respect.
    "After the 1980 campaign, everybody was impressed," former Gov. Jerry Apodaca has said.
    As one avenue for Richardson's return to Washington closed, another opened.
    New Mexico's population growth resulted in creation of an additional House seat. The district was in northern New Mexico, heavily Democratic and Hispanic. It was as if the political gods had intervened for Richardson, the son of an American banker and his Mexican wife.
    In 1982, Richardson defeated three opponents in the Democratic primary, including Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragon and lawyer Tom Udall. (Udall, after a stint as state attorney general, was elected to the same House seat in 1998 after Richardson moved on.)
    With Democrats far outnumbering Republicans in the new 3rd Congressional District for northern New Mexico, Richardson won in a romp in the November election, defeating educator Marjorie Bell Chambers of Los Alamos by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1.
    His election was not without controversy.
    In response to a news media inquiry, Richardson acknowledged an error in the biography of him issued by his campaign.
    The biography incorrectly said that Richardson, as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had served as the top foreign affairs aide to Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.
    "I was not the top aide, but I was a top aide," Richardson said at the time. "What the hell's the difference?"
    A Humphrey aide said, "Richardson was just a regular member of the subcommittee staff."
    There also were questions about Richardson's campaign finances, because he used a $100,000 certificate of deposit owned by his mother to secure a bank loan to his campaign.
    A complaint with the Federal Elections Commission alleged the loan was illegal because it was guaranteed by someone other than the candidate.
    The FEC cleared Richardson of wrongdoing.
    Richardson initially refused to publicly identify the owner of the certificate of deposit but later said his mother, a Mexican citizen living in Mexico City, was the owner. He said he had tried to protect her privacy in not naming her sooner.
    Richardson also disclosed in 1982 that the money he lent his unsuccessful congressional campaign two years earlier came from sales of stocks and bonds and interests in two partnerships.
    He had previously said he remortgaged his new home in Santa Fe to come up with the money to lend to the campaign.
    Everybody's friend
    Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, was one of Richardson's fellow members of the freshman class of Congress in 1983.
    Richardson convinced Ortiz and other members of the small but growing Congressional Hispanic Caucus that the caucus should take positions on a wider range of issues, from immigration to foreign policy.
    Richardson took on the job of overseeing the writing of position papers and trying to sell the ideas to Democrats and Republicans alike.
    "Bill is the kind of guy who would talk to anybody," Ortiz says. "Not only that; he would make them a friend."
    In his first year in Congress, the brash Richardson made the unusual move of speaking in Spanish on the House floor.
    He later said an older Hispanic member in Congress "told me I was pushing too hard."
    Richardson also was busy his freshman year raising money to pay off his campaign debt. His membership on the Energy and Commerce Committee was a big help.
    The Washington Post reported that the young Democrat from New Mexico was the leading congressional recipient of contributions from political action committees in his first six months in office.
    Richardson said he needed the money because of a heavy campaign debt— about $150,000 after his 1982 election— and he made no excuses for raking in the dough.
    "We're all guilty. You can talk a good game, but you still take the money," he said in 1984 in commenting on contributions from political action committees.
    Richardson later gave up PAC money for three years but resumed accepting limited contributions in 1996.
    He said he decided to take PAC money again because not doing so forced him to travel the country in search of money. "It was a drain," he said at the time.
    Richardson remained involved in Hispanic issues throughout his congressional career.
    In 1985, he announced his support of sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers, reversing his position of a year earlier.
    One reason he cited for the switch was a mood in Congress for sanctions as part of an immigration bill, and Richardson didn't want to be left behind.
    "If I put in another bill that doesn't deal with employer sanctions, it would just be counterproductive," he said at the time. "I just wouldn't be a player."
    Richardson also supported amnesty for undocumented workers.
    He has said he wants to be known as the politician who is Hispanic, not as the Hispanic politician.
    "I believe you're a stronger Hispanic advocate if you're a player in the mainstream," he said in 2000. "I'm very proud to be a Hispanic. But the key to being successful as an American public figure is not to be pigeonholed."
    National scene calls
    Johnson, the former House parliamentarian, says he remembers Richardson in his early years in Congress offering amendments to bills on a wide range of issues.
    "He was going on all over the place," Johnson says. "He won a few and lost a few."
    By 1988, Richardson was emerging as a player in national politics.
    He served that year as a co-chairman of the Democratic Party's platform committee and co-chairman of the campaign of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
    "I think that because I'm a Westerner, because I'm relatively young and because I'm Hispanic, the national party has given me opportunities," Richardson said at the time.
    He also helped his own cause.
    During the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988, most of the party's leaders hosted a single event. Richardson put on four or five, according to Isabelle Watkins, a Georgia native who helped Richardson's office find venues for his events and later would serve as his administrative assistant for 12 years.
    "It was typical Bill," Watkins says.
    Dukakis asked Richardson to lead the Hispanic voter outreach initiative, and as soon as Congress recessed, Richardson relocated to Boston, where he flew out each day to a major city to meet with Hispanic leaders and walk Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
    "At one point, he actually had a hole in the bottom of his shoe," Watkins says. "He's utterly like the Energizer Bunny. He never seems to run out of gas. He is ready to go and work and work."
    During his congressional career, Richardson also traveled around the country to help House colleagues campaign in their districts, building up a sizable stack of IOUs.
    In 1992, he cashed the chits in, winning election as a chief deputy whip and giving him the job of helping get colleagues in line behind Democratic positions.
    "I felt that I was getting restless and wanted to get more into getting things done, more on national and international issues," Richardson has said.
    When Bill Clinton made his run for president in 1992, Richardson was late to get on the bandwagon during the nominating season but campaigned hard for Clinton in the general election.
    He thought his work would be rewarded when the new president assembled his Cabinet, and Richardson was in the running for interior secretary but was passed over for Bruce Babbitt.
    He was with his mother and sister, Vesta, on vacation in Acapulco, Mexico, when Clinton interrupted their breakfast to break the news. Vesta Richardson recalls the half of the conversation that she heard.
    "He gets up and answers the phone and first he just says, 'Yes, yes. yes. Well, I just want you to remember this. I was the one that got all the Hispanic votes for you, and I was the one who's been working his tail off ... and this is how you pay me back? Oh, I see, OK. Well, never mind, Mr. President. We're still friends.' ''
    Master of persuasion
    Richardson remained loyal to Clinton despite the disappointment.
    He supported Clinton's spending and tax-increase plan in 1993 and helped Clinton win House passage that year of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
    Top Democrats in the House opposed NAFTA but Richardson broke with leadership to be Clinton's key vote counter in the House for the trade agreement.
    He worked fellow House members on the issue and organized a congressional delegation visit to Mexico.
    "I remember being part of deals with the White House where million-dollar grants and projects were doled out (to get House votes), including some that had little chance for creating a single job," Richardson said in his book "Between Worlds," released in 2005.
    He also said in the book, "I did slap backs, squeeze shoulders, bear-hug, and sometimes use the expressive idiom to underscore a point."
    Richardson congressional staff member Tara Federici says the congressman was good at schmoozing colleagues but could be forceful if necessary.
    "He certainly knew when to use different approaches," Federici says.
    Richard Kiy, as a legislative fellow from the Environmental Protection Agency, worked with Richardson on passage of NAFTA.
    "Thanks to NAFTA, Clinton began to see some of his unique skill sets," Kiy says.
    Richardson remained loyal to Clinton on such issues as a balanced budget and welfare reform. His rewards included a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention in 1996.
    "I feel I'm at the apex of a good career. You can see the hard work, and the hard knocks, paying off," Richardson said in an interview at the convention.
    Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty says Richardson was responsive to the White House, smart, dependable and personable.
    "For all those reasons, his stock went up," McLarty says. "He was regarded as a serious, engaged leader in Congress."
    'A force of nature'
    When Richardson arrived in Congress, Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., was an esteemed member of the House. He also was elderly and had a hearing problem.
    Richardson would approach Pepper on the floor and frustrate him by mouthing but not speaking his words, causing Pepper to fiddle with a hearing aid before catching on to Richardson's prank.
    Richardson often used pranks and humor to connect with his colleagues.
    "He uses this childish approach to get things done," says Ortiz, the Texas congressman.
    Former House Speaker Foley says Richardson's personality was a major asset during his years in Congress.
    "He's outgoing and makes friends easy," Foley says. "Politics is an interactive, personal business."
    Richardson also likes to give people nicknames and tease those who work for him.
    The nicknames he chooses are often incomprehensible— he has called several aides Joseph over the years— and always chosen to especially annoy their recipients.
    His longtime administrative assistant Watkins, a cultured Southern gentlewoman, was dubbed Izzy, a childhood nickname she despised.
    "He pulled that out of the air one day and saw that he had hit a nerve because it was obvious that I did not like it," she says. "And there's nothing that gets him to repeat a name as much as the wincing that you do."
    McLarty is among those to compare Richardson's personality to that of Clinton.
    "They both have big, outgoing personalities and like to laugh, to engage people," he says.
    A former senator says Richardson has an "enveloping energy and enthusiasm." A longtime friend calls him a "force of nature."
    Elizabeth Westfall, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff, says he genuinely likes people.
    "People want to have a beer with Bill Richardson," Westfall says. "He wants to talk with you, have a beer with you."
    Kiy, who worked with Richardson on NAFTA, says he jokes and swaggers to loosen up people. "He's like this lovable teddy bear," he says.
    At times, Richardson's humor can seem irreverent, biting or self-promoting.
    "He drops in plugs for himself," says Kay Cordtz, a former Richardson congressional staff member. "Sometimes it doesn't hit the right note."
    Kenderdine, the Richardson congressional staff member, says many people like Richardson but says he has probably made some enemies.
    "He's able to smooth them over because he's likable," she says. "He's fairly courageous that way."
    Richardson has acknowledged that some have found his humor off-putting or crude at times.
    "When a lot of people come to you and talk, maybe sometimes language gets a little locker-roomish," he said in 2002.
    Richardson can be self-effacing about his struggles to control his weight and his sometimes-rumpled appearance. One magazine writer likened his looks to those of the late comedian John Belushi.
    A member of Richardson's congressional staff recalls him stepping on the House floor with his shirttail out. Another time, he showed for a major speech on NAFTA with tomato sauce on his white shirt.
    Richardson also likes to touch people, whether it's a handshake, a head-butt or a rub on the head.
    "Physical contact is who I am," he said in 2002. "I like to have a good handshake with people. I like to put my arm around them."
    The loyal taskmaster
    Jeffrey Steinborn, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff, recalls a weekend when his boss flew overseas, then to New Mexico for a parade, then back to Washington, showing up for work at 8 a.m. Monday.
    "He shrugged his shoulders and said just another day at work," Steinborn says.
    Richardson was no 9-to-5 congressman. He has described himself as a workaholic, an adjective also used by others.
    "He doesn't know what a full plate is. A banquet wouldn't satisfy him," says Stephen Arias, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff.
    Richardson drove his congressional staff just as hard, if not harder, than he drove himself.
    One staffer said working for him was like being in the military. Richardson's way of complimenting a staffer was to joke that he or she was fired.
    Kenderdine says she left his staff to get married.
    "You can't work for Bill and be married and reproduce," she says. "I was dying. He's a very, very hard worker."
    Steinborn says Richardson was interested in bold ideas from staffers, not half-measures to address a problem. "He's not looking for little things," he says.
    During his congressional career, Richardson also displayed loyalty to those who supported him.
    He stood by House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, even after a House committee had found "reason to believe" that Wright violated the House code of conduct on gifts and outside income in 69 instances.
    "I never like to take cheap shots," Richardson has said.
    Former Rep. Robert Garcia, D-N.Y., says Richardson also stood by him when he was charged with extortion in a government-contract scandal.
    Garcia was tried twice and convicted both times, but an appeals court overturned the verdicts. The federal government decided in 1993 not to try Garcia a third time.
    "One person who never left my side and always believed in me was Bill Richardson," the former congressman says.
    After leaving Congress, Richardson also opposed impeachment proceedings against Clinton.
    People who have worked for Richardson frequently use the word "smart" to describe him.
    "People respect him for what he had to say," says former Rep. Bob Edgar, D-Pa.
    Adds Kathleen Keith, a Richardson congressional staff member, "He can really get in-depth on 5,000 issues and understand them all."
    Keith recalls how Richardson, during a committee hearing on Medicaid, remembered a handwritten letter on the topic received seven months earlier from a constituent.
    "He read every piece of mail that came into that office," she says.
    Former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., says Richardson is more than book-smart.
    "He's street-smart, too," Bonior says. "He knows what's important to people."
    Walter "Butch" Maki, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff and is a close friend, says Richardson "knows what makes people tick, and he can get things done that way."
    Anthony Podesta, another Richardson friend and Washington deal-maker, says Richardson's combination of skills make him a formidable ally.
    "If you're in a war, you want Bill Richardson in a foxhole," Podesta says.
    Lust for the limelight
    During his early years in Congress, Richardson gained a reputation as a man in a hurry.
    "My philosophy was then and remains today this: Err on the side of trying to do too much rather than the side of doing too little," he said in his book.
    The Almanac of American Politics once called Richardson "ambitious and often pushy."
    "Those who work closely with Richardson say he can be more aggressive about seeking the credit than reliable in doing the legislative heavy lifting," the Politics in America guide said in 1990.
    George magazine once ranked Richardson a top 10 "publicity hound."
    Gilbert Peña, then chairman of the All-Indian Pueblo Council in New Mexico, criticized Richardson in 1986 for changing positions on tribal gambling legislation.
    "We certainly don't need a fish out of water, flip-flopping all over the place," Peña said.
    In 1986, former Gov. Dave Cargo, then challenging Richardson's re-election, accused Richardson of abusing his congressional franking privilege by sending so much mail to his constituents.
    "If I were a postman in this district, I sure as hell wouldn't vote for him," Cargo said.
    Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., describes Richardson as unabashed.
    "He didn't sit in the back row," Domenici says. "If there was room in the front row, he would take it."
    Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., accused Richardson in 1985 of being discourteous and unethical by taking credit for obtaining funding for a military project in Skeen's district.
    Politics in America also said Richardson seemed "to be spread too thin ... lacking the consistent follow-through essential to successful lawmaking."
    Such criticism was the result of Richardson's "endless quest" to accumulate power, former Richardson congressional staffer Richard Parker has said.
    "He was trying to figure out how to move ahead," said Parker, who also covered Richardson as a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal.
    Richardson, in a 2002 interview, didn't deny he spread himself too thin at times while in Congress but said it wasn't about power.
    "I think it was a voracious appetite to make a difference in many areas," he said.
    Another congressional staff member says the criticism that Richardson was a publicity hound was unfounded. "He's in the paper a lot because he's doing a lot," says Stu Nagurka, who worked as Richardson's press aide.
    Some expressed concerns about Richardson's temperament during his congressional career.
    A health care activist said she was once banned from his office because of a disagreement over a Clinton health care plan.
    A former state senator said Richardson told him their friendship was no more after an exchange between the two on a newspaper's opinion pages.
    Richardson also took some heat for his travel as a congressman.
    In 1992, after being cited as one of the top travelers in the House at industry expense, he gave up industry-sponsored travel and honorariums for speeches.
    A year earlier, Richardson had called travel "an important and necessary evil of a high-profile federal legislator's job."
    Bucking the party
    Richardson's New Democrat-like politics in Congress sometimes put him into conflict with others in his party.
    "Many of these were not votes that warmed the hearts of leaders in my party," he said in his book.
    Richardson's opposition to gun control led to a tangle with Clinton.
    He angered some House Democrats by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform and NAFTA.
    Even members of Richardson's own staff objected to his support of a constitutional amendment to prohibit desecration of the U.S. flag.
    "I was a conservative Democrat, who became a progressive Democrat, who's now a moderate," he said in 1996.
    Richardson also has described himself as "a progressive moderate who's also pragmatic" and "not an ideologue."
    The Democratic Party "has to shift to new solutions," he said in 1996. "The '94 elections were an overwhelming rejection of bureaucracy and spending. And those were always the two elements in our programs."
    Former Rep. Edgar describes Richardson as a "practical centrist."
    "My guess is he believes some of it and shapes some of it because of his hopes for the political future," he says.
    Cordtz, the former Richardson congressional staffer, says Richardson is first and foremost a politician.
    "He makes decisions based on politics," she says. "He doesn't make decisions based on what is smart or makes sense."
    Richardson also has been described as results-oriented by those who have worked with him.
    "I have a fundamental belief that with sound public policy, sound leadership, that one can make things better for people on a variety of fronts. I'm a generalist," Richardson said in 2002.
    He also says he believes that he shouldn't side with any special interest all the time and that one side on an issue shouldn't get 100 percent of what it wants.
    "I like a little streak of independence," Richardson said in 2002.
    He said in his book, "It's critical that no one thinks they own your vote and that you remain your own person."
    Richardson has said that his vote against the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was a mistake.
    He said in his book that he believed at the time that the United States should give sanctions more time to work but later became convinced of the deceptions of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
    Taking the heat
    Rebecca Gear, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff, remembers attending a Richardson town meeting with constituents in her conservative hometown of Clovis.
    Gear says those at the meeting jumped on Richardson "something terrible," beating him up on a range of issues from abortion to gun control.
    She says she apologized to Richardson afterward and was told to get a tough skin.
    "I was embarrassed for the community," Gear says. "He didn't look at it that way."
    Gear says Richardson believed it was part of his job to listen to voters even when they disagreed.
    "How many other elected officials will go back and face the music?" Gear asks. "Through time, he gained respect, even from some from the opposite party."
    O'Neill, the late House speaker who campaigned for Richardson in 1980, made popular the saying that all politics is local. Richardson never forgot the adage as he became a national political figure.
    "Seniority can breed lack of responsiveness to constituents," he said in 1988. "You can get a little fat if you don't watch out. If the voters think you've gotten too big for your britches, they'll hit you at the polls."
    Richardson traveled home to hold town meetings, met with constituents when they went to Washington and tended to the smallest concerns of those who sent him to Congress.
    He said he attended more than 2,500 town meetings in his district during his time in Congress.
    "I have visited every community countless numbers of times, traveled nearly every dirt road, walked and tossed candy in every parade, addressed students at school after school and met so many good, loving, hardworking people along the way," Richardson said in 1997.
    In 1992, he spent more on mailings to his constituents than any other member of the New Mexico congressional delegation.
    David Gillette, a congressional aide to Richardson, says the congressman "could have become one of those D.C. guys" but didn't despite being assured of re-election.
    Lisa Morrison, who worked on Richardson's congressional staff, remembers a military veteran from New Mexico showing up at Richardson's office unannounced and the congressman taking him to a White House reception.
    Morrison says the veteran glowed. "I'll never forget his face," she says.
    Richardson's district included northern New Mexico, and he called himself the "Fighter for the North."
    He came to the defense of the town of Madrid when an East Coast newspaper reporter described it as "a haven for latter-day hippies, stressed-out Vietnam vets and sometimes-struggling artists."
    When some people in Taos said they were hearing a hum, Richardson didn't dismiss them as nuts, as some others did. He listened to their concerns and investigated whether secret military equipment was the cause.
    He helped the Santa Fe post office obtain an overhauled cancellation machine after complaints that mail from the capital city had an Albuquerque— not a Santa Fe— postmark.
    Richardson's staff also responded to telephone calls and letters from constituents concerned about issues or needing help navigating the federal bureaucracy to secure, for example, a Social Security check or a passport.
    Asked in 1993 to name his proudest accomplishments in Congress, Richardson listed solely parochial issues.
    That list included legislation to create Zuni-Cibola National Historical Park, Glorieta National Battlefield, El Malpais National Monument and Santa Fe National Historic Trail.
    Also on the list was amending the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to include segments of the Rio Chama, east fork of the Jemez River and the Pecos River.
    Richardson never faced a serious election challenge in his 14 years in Congress.
    The negotiator
    Miguel Marquez, then a foreign policy aide to Richardson, was with the congressman when he flew to North Korea in December 1994.
    As a member of the House intelligence committee, Richardson made the trip to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program, human rights and other issues.
    But shortly after landing in cold, dark Pyongyang, the Richardson entourage learned that a U.S. Army helicopter had accidentally strayed into the country and been downed.
    "It was one of those sucker-punch kind of things," says Marquez, now a reporter with ABC News.
    Richardson changed his agenda to focus on negotiating the release of the pilots, one of whom had been killed when the chopper was shot down.
    Marquez says Richardson was patient and persistent but willing to talk and listen to the North Koreans. His affability was his biggest asset, he said.
    "This is where the guy really shines," he says.
    Richardson negotiated the release of the remains of the dead pilot. The surviving pilot was freed after the congressman had left the country and after further talks between North Korea and the Clinton administration.
    With his seat safe back home, Richardson was free during his congressional career to not only pursue a national political career, but to chase his passion for foreign affairs.
    He had studied international relations in college and worked in the State Department and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
    Six years after being elected to Congress, Richardson got an appointment to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, enabling him to exercise his interest in foreign affairs.
    Richardson's talks in 1995 with Hussein in Baghdad led to the release of two Americans who had accidentally wandered into Iraq from Kuwait while working in that country.
    The next year, Richardson went to Cuba twice and met with President Fidel Castro, winning the release of three political dissidents.
    Later in 1996, the congressmen flew to Sudan to negotiate the release of three Red Cross workers held by government rebels.
    "I listen a lot. I try not to impose my views. It's important to listen, but important to be forceful, too," he said in 1995 in commenting on his negotiating style.
    Timothy Carney, a former U.S. ambassador to Sudan who was with Richardson when he traveled there in 1996, says Richardson was more political than diplomatic, more interested in results than pomp.
    "He's not a button-down, Type A, do-it-by-the-book human being," Carney says. "He's no bureaucrat."
    Sometimes Richardson traveled as a representative of the Clinton administration but other times simply as a member of Congress.
    Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, says he was concerned initially that Richardson would be a loose cannon, but "I quickly became a fan."
    Partly because of his affable personality, Richardson was able to be an effective diplomat without seeming like one, Lake said.
    "He was truthful, but he wasn't obnoxious, dealing with a lot of obnoxious characters," he said.
    As a worker with the United Nations, Jehan Raheem attended a meeting in February 1994 that Richardson held in Myanmar with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese democracy movement.
    Raheem says he was impressed with Richardson's knowledge of the issues surrounding Myanmar and the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.
    "He didn't only listen. He asked questions," he says.
    Although Richardson gave himself the nickname undersecretary for thugs, some called him the Red Adair of American foreign policy, rushing to the latest hot spot.
    In his book, Richardson recalled walking into the House after returning from Iraq and receiving a standing ovation from his fellow congressmen.
    "Foreign policy? I was on top of the world," he said.
    Richardson's success on his foreign travels made him a natural for an international relations job after Clinton won a second term in 1996.
    He had worked hard for the president once again, and the ambitious Richardson hoped he would be rewarded with another step up the political ladder.
   
Dates of note
   

    1980 Narrowly loses bid to unseat six-term Republican Manuel Lujan in 1st Congressional District.
    1982 Wins newly created 3rd Congressional District seat for Northern New Mexico.
    1985 Named Democratic regional whip in House, first step on leadership ladder.
    1988 Begins serving on House Select Committee on Intelligence, providing platform for international travel.
    1992 Named a Democratic chief deputy whip.
    1993 Helps President Clinton win passage of North American Free Trade Agreement; supports Clinton spending and tax-increase package.
    1994 Negotiates release of body of U.S. Army helicopter pilot killed in North Korea.
    1995 Negotiates release of two Americans detained in Iraq.
    1996 Negotiates release of three Red Cross workers held in Sudan.
    DID YOU KNOW?
   
  • Richardson served in Congress during the terms of three presidents: Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
       
  • A study released in 1991 found Richardson traveled at corporate expense more than all but four of his House colleagues.
       
  • Richardson pledged during his first campaign for Congress in 1980 that he would serve only six years.
       
  • Richardson, in his first seven months in the House, ranked No. 4 in campaign contributions among the 42 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

       

  • Read Part 3 of High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House